Buddhist Games in Japan

Speaking of “classic” gaming, this was originally posted on Dr. Scott Mitchell’s blog, but I wanted to share here too.

This is a game based on the popular video game, 太鼓の達人 or “Taiko Master”, which you can find in arcades all over Japan. My daughter and I often play it at the local Namco Game Center near my wife’s house when we are in Japan. 🙂

This game, called okyō no tatsujin (お経の達人, “Sutra Master”) though has an amusing Buddhist/anime feel to it. It is made by a famous Buddhist temple in the Hachioji part of Tokyo called Ryōhōji. Ryohoji is famous for its efforts to bring Buddhism to a younger generation through anime. You can see another video here, where Ryohoji is unveiling a new anime altar:

In the game, the main character plays a Buddhist “bodhisattva”, who beats on a wooden fish (mokugyo) and Buddhist bell as spirits move across the screen. You try to time the hits to send the spirits to the afterlife, which matches the beat of the music. You can hear the same music around 3:30 if you watch the second video.

As you play, you see lots of wooden tablets come up, similar to the ones you see in Japanese graveyards. These are inscribed with things like nam-myoho-renge-kyō (南無妙法蓮華経) which is part of Nichiren Buddhism, and other phrases like o-haka bunjōchū (お墓分譲中, “grave plots for sale”), the temple’s location (i.e. which train station) and so on. The game is a light-hearted look a Buddhism in Japan, and I really enjoyed this video. Even though I have no interest in anime, and the self-promotion is a bit gaudy, I’d love to play the game if I could.

I’ve seen some Western Buddhists write articles about this game, and the temple, and most of their comments seemed confused or critical. Most people simply think it’s “weird”, without understanding the social context. I think foreigners who have lived in Japan, or (like me) visited Buddhist temples in Japan can appreciate the jokes, and the light-hearted humor. Japanese Buddhism is what it is. 🙂

Also, Buddhism is also a religion that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is not offended by some good humor. If convert-Buddhists spend too much time worrying about what is “true Buddhism”, they’ll miss out on all the ways Buddhism has shaped cultures in the world, and been shaped by cultures in the world. It is their loss.

Meanwhile, I’ll look for this game the next time I visit Japan. I might even visit Ryohoji too. 😉

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Buddhist Games in Japan”

  1. I was watching the movie “Departures” the other day and thinking a lot about this question you raise re: religion and culture shaping each other. So much of Departures is clearly, deeply, infused with Japanese Buddhist sensibilities and rituals and ideas (and, also, Shinto) — but you might not know that if you’re particularly familiar with Japanese Buddhism on the ground. If you’re experience of Japanese Buddhism is either textual or limited to a few practices in a new cultural context (i.e., the U.S.), a lot of what happens in Departures might not seem particularly Buddhist at all. Long story short, you raise a good point about here about social context and “authenticity.” Thanks!

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    1. Huh, I never heard of that movie, but it looked kind of interesting based on what Wikipedia said (and Wikipedia is never wrong as we know).

      If you’re experience of Japanese Buddhism is either textual or limited to a few practices in a new cultural context (i.e., the U.S.), a lot of what happens in Departures might not seem particularly Buddhist at all.

      That pretty much says it. Still, it’s frustrating when Buddhist experts in the US complain about such practices without having been immersed. I suspect most Buddhist bloggers who wrote about that silly game can’t even read or understand Japanese, which means they really have no idea what they’re looking at.

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